#147: Grand theft

On the messy, scary fallout from the GTAVI leak — and a potential ray of sunshine through the clouds.

In case you somehow missed it, on Sunday over 90 in-progress videos of Grand Theft Auto VI were released onto the internet. The culprit apparently obtained them through Slack, and also claims to have access to the game’s source code. I will not be linking to anything here — one-man show, no legal department, all that — but it’s not exactly hard to find. As I write, the latest news is that the FBI is apparently investigating. The kid must be bricking it. Good!

Hit Points, as those of you who have been around for a while will know, tries to look at events from a zoomed-out perspective. How do the events of the day affect the game industry, its support structures and typical rhythms, its media and observers and customers? I tend to find that by looking at something from multiple perspectives, I am able to think my way to some sort of conclusion. My initial reaction to Sunday’s bombshell was that it is that rare situation where no one benefits at all.

Obviously this is most miserable for employees of Rockstar Games, whose years of hard work have been shared with the world long before they were meant to be shown. The mere thought of a reader seeing the v1 of an Edge page brings me out in a cold sweat. If you saw the first draft of an edition of Hit Points, with its plethora of NOT SURE ABOUT THISes and ETC AND SO ONs, you would unsubscribe immediately. And these are things that have been mere hours or days in the making. I cannot imagine how it must feel to have years of unfinished work put on display in this fashion, and my heart goes out to everyone working on the game, particularly when I think about what happens next. It is not difficult to speculate on the immediate consequences: morale will plummet, momentum will stall, and I imagine the general atmosphere will deteriorate further as investigations are conducted, security is tightened, and a general vibe of mistrust hangs over the place.

For players, this is not just a matter of the GTAVI hype train being derailed; it may also mean an even longer wait for our first official look at the game. This is hardly an insider perspective — though I do have firsthand experience of it, having attended the first gameplay demos for GTAV and Red Dead Redemption II — but Rockstar is very, very careful about the way in which it reveals its games. That first slice, when it finally comes, is always polished to the nth degree. I doubt we will see GTAVI’s true form until Rockstar has worked out what n+1 looks like.

This has a knock-on effect on the press as well, of course. There are few bigger traffic drivers than a new GTA, and the fairly obvious assumption here is that Rockstar will now keep its cards even closer to its chest. There will be less access, and when it eventually arrives it will likely be limited to an even smaller pool of outlets. There may even be punishment beatings for those who reported on the hack, though my inner optimist, in a rare appearance, reckons Rockstar probably realises the folly of trying to Streisand this one, or taking action against those who aided its spread.

And for all parties involved, there may be a wider chilling effect. Companies around the industry, particularly the bigger ones, will surely be spending this week reviewing their security policies, reassessing their PR and marketing plans, perhaps even discussing whether it’s time to order staff back to the office fulltime. For all the chatter I’ve seen in the last few days about whether it’s time the game industry stopped being so secretive, it seems more likely to me that the opposite will happen. Much as we might like the game industry to throw open its doors, I fear they will batten down the hatches instead.

The last few days have been a wearying showcase for the most annoying genre of tweet — the one that screenshots a terrible take from some account with ten followers and dunks on it to a viral audience of millions. There have been times when, once again, everyone appears to be shouting at each other: devs, players and press calling each other lazy, or scurrilous, or ignorant or whatever. But the tone of most of the discourse I’ve seen has been pretty positive, and certainly sympathetic. Sure, I imagine much of that is a matter of the circles in which I move. But on the forums, Discord channels and social platforms I post and keep an eye on, the reaction has been one of curiosity and intrigue, rather than ill-informed, spittle-flecked invective.

People understand that most of the leaked footage is work-in-progress, that much of it is years old, and that release is a couple of years away. They appreciate the opportunity to see what one of the world’s most keenly anticipated games looks like at this stage of development. The weekend’s events have, I reckon, given interested observers a greater appreciation of just how hard game development is. Even GTA looks like crap at some point! This is not necessarily obvious to everyone that buys a massmarket sensation like this. Developers have shared WIP images of some of the biggest names in gaming to stress that GTAVI is far from an isolated case; that all games suck until the moment they don’t, and that moment often arrives pretty late in the day.

In my consulting work I’ve seen plenty of stuff like this, as you’d expect, but I also saw a fair amount of it while I was a journalist. In late 2014 I visited Naughty Dog for an Edge cover story on Uncharted 4. Yes, I was treated to the same sort of carefully controlled, live-narrated gameplay demo I got at Rockstar for GTAV and Red Dead. (Bruce Straley enthused about the ‘procedurally tessellated water’, three words I had never heard together before and have never heard since, and whose potential meaning baffles me to this day.) We did the interviews and they were… fine. But as was so often the case on these trips, it was the studio tour — a stop in each department, a series of quick peeks behind each curtain — that made the story.

They showed me a test environment for the game’s climbing system. It was an empty void with an infinite wireframe wall along which a modestly rendered Nathan Drake could scamper, letting animators and level designers test their work. There was none of the massmarket UX furniture of the final game: no scratched-up wall to denote a shimmyable ledge, or telltale faded paintwork to signal a handhold. It was completely pure, and I was absolutely awestruck. I loved it! I suggested they put it in the game somehow, as a VR Missions sort of thing, and am still a bit cross that they didn’t.

Uncharted 4 finally released an awkward 16 months after the Edge cover had proclaimed it ‘the biggest game of the year’ — in fairness, we didn’t say which year — and as soon as I first threw Drake at a climbing wall, I flashed back to that studio visit. Just as the wireframe wall had stunned me in the moment, so the opportunity to compare it years later with the final product made me marvel at just how good these things look in the end, and how much work must go into them. Perhaps, when the final game is at last in their hands, the millions of people who got an unjustified, unwarranted early look at Grand Theft Auto VI will come to the same realisation, and in hindsight this sorry mess will look slightly less disastrous than it does today. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. If we could all stop shouting at each other in the meantime, that’d be wonderful.


  • “Been there, done that,” writes Roland in response to Friday’s edition, on recent layoffs in the games media. Roland, it transpires, was once the editor in chief of a German magazine published by Future, until he suddenly wasn’t. “When Future saw some cells in the wrong colour, they shut us down — Germany’s best-selling multiformat magazine, no less. After ten years on the market, our readers were devastated. We took all the pages that were done already, put them together as a behind-the-scenes issue, layout corrections and all, and gave readers the chance to order and pre-pay for the very last issue. We then took the money and went to a huge copy shop to have them printed and bound. We numbered and signed them, too. Best time of my life, really.” Hats off to you, sir. What an excellent thing to do, though of course it should never have come to it.

  • “It’s a cyclical industry,” offers Chris in a comment on Friday’s piece. “The key to managing that is not to over-spend when things are going well and not to panic when things are going poorly. It’s mad we’ve still not learnt these lessons after more then four decades. The amount of money the media spent during the pandemic was reckless.” Indeed, indeed. What a mess.


  • The forthcoming PSVR 2 will not be backwards compatible with OG PSVR software, Sony has admitted. I appreciate that there are bound to be technical limitations that make doing this sort of thing very difficult. But I also reckon that a company that was a bit more committed to doing right by its customers would see the obvious benefits in surmounting whatever challenges exist, and making it happen. Having one of those things in the house is intrusive enough, frankly.
  • Speaking of Sony, it is reportedly making a PS5 with a detachable disc drive. Presumably this is about simplifying manufacturing to ease the supply-chain crunch — only one model on shelves, buy the disc thingum if you want it — but still, what a weird idea.
  • EA CEO and gleaming automaton Andrew Wilson is well up for Acquisition Blizzard, particularly if it leaves Battlefield as the industry’s premier multiplatform shooter (stop laughing at the back). “Being platform-agnostic and completely cross-platform with Battlefield I think is a tremendous opportunity,” he bleeped.
  • Former PlayStation US boss Shawn Layden has joined Tencent as a strategic advisor. Big Debbie McGee energy to this, hats off.
  • Vampire Survivors’ price will be going up in a couple of days. Three bucks for one of Hit Points’ games of the year is an absolute steal, so fill your boots if you haven’t already.

There we go! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed this edition, do give it a share — I am hugely reliant on readers to help spread the word about the good ship Hit Points, and am hugely grateful to those who do. Have a grand couple of days, and I’ll see you Friday.